Best & worst of Columbo


I’ve been watching Columbo on the Netflix almost every night for the last few weeks. I’ve seen all those original episodes from the 70s several times; so I pretty much put them on, get comfy on the couch, and fall asleep to Peter Falk’s most beloved character. Most of the episodes are entertaining and very much of the 1970s. Lots of bad fashion, weird interior design, and smoking. Everybody smoked back then. At least, that’s how it seems.

Well, you might imagine that I’ve gotten to know those shows pretty well, and I have. You might also imagine I have favorites and not favorites, and I have. So, I thought I’d list the top three and the bottom three. This is, of course, just my opinion. Your results may vary.

My top three episode picks:

3) The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case – Original air date May 22, 1977


In this episode, Lt. Columbo investigates a murder at a Mensa-type meeting house, where people with very high IQs gather to talk smart stuff. One of the members, Oliver Brandt, played by Theodore Bikel, knows his accounting partner and fellow club member, Bertie (Sorrell Booke), has discovered his embezzling of their clients’ funds. Brandt has concocted a brilliant plan to murder Bertie, using a gun with a silencer, then join the meeting of the minds, and make it sound as though the murder is taking place while he is with the group.

Bikel is excellent as the genius troubled by his spendthrift, but gorgeous, wife (Samantha Eggar) and bored by the idiot geniuses he is surrounded by at the club. Columbo, ever the polite, rumpled, non-threatening detective, demonstrates that he might be eligible to join the group as he masterfully gets the murderer to show us how he did it. And Bikel’s momentary joy as he shows the detective his ingenious scheme is terrific.

2) Short Fuse – Original air date January 19, 1972


Roddy McDowell plays a none-too-serious, spoiled rich kid who is being blackmailed by his uncle into allowing the uncle to sell the family business to a huge conglomerate. “Junior”, as McDowell’s character is called, is a brilliant chemist and he rigs a cigar box to explode, killing his uncle. Junior then takes control of the company.

As always, Columbo politely investigates, appearing to be clueless, all the while innocently maneuvering the murderer into admitting his crime. In fact, the reveal that takes place on a mountain sky car has McDowell very convincingly losing his cool believing something awful is about to happen.

1) Murder By The Book – Original air date September 15, 1971


This is the premiere episode of the Columbo series and it stars Jack Cassidy as the bad guy. Cassidy, who rivals Robert Culp as the best murderer of the series, (both actors have played the murderer three times) plays the less productive half of the writing team of the very successful Mrs. Melville mystery novels. He decides to murder his writing partner (Martin Milner) instead of letting him go off and write on his own. Later, he kills a woman (Barbara Colby) who was blackmailing him, because she knew what he did.

Right from the beginning of the series, Cassidy set the template on how the suspects would treat Columbo. He would pretend to help, but would soon become dismissive of our disheveled detective, even annoyed. In fact, he would become angry that Columbo just kept popping up to ask one more question.

This episode was directed by Steven Spielberg and you can see some Spielberg touches throughout the show, especially in the final scene as Cassidy angrily walks off the elevator and heads to his office. There are a few police officers around and, as Cassidy passes them and goes off camera, a cop steps into frame to keep a watchful eye. Pure Spielberg.

My bottom three picks:

3) Fade In To Murder – Original air date October 10, 1976


William Shatner plays the murderer this time. His character an actor who plays Detective Lucerne on a wildly popular television series. Columbo acts a bit starstruck as he allows Shatner to pretend he is the TV detective helping a real detective solve a murder. The murder was of the producer (Lola Albright) of the Detective Lucerne program. She was blackmailing the actor by threatening to expose the fact that he had deserted the Korean War.

The idea is that Shatner plays a sympathetic murderer. And he kind of is, but it’s Shatner and his acting is a bit Shatner-y. The show does acknowledge that it is silly for Columbo to play into the fantasy that the actor is actually the character he plays, which helps. A little.

But what gets under my skin is how often Columbo calls the murderer “sir”. It’s a lot! I counted and I got, at least, 150 uses of the pronoun. It drove my wife crazy when we watched this episode together once. “Stop saying sir!” she shouted at the TV.

It seems the over-abundant “sirs” were intentional. Columbo always called men “sir” through the series, but this show ramped it up so that Shatner could, once he had been busted, tell Columbo to stop calling him “sir”.

Even if it was intentional, it was very annoying.

2) Dagger Of The Mind – Original air date November 26, 1972


Columbo takes his show on the road. He heads to London to check out investigation techniques at Scotland Yard and ends up solving a murder. Two aging actors of the theat-AR (husband and wife characters played by Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman) have tricked a wealthy aristocrat (John Williams) into financing a production of Macbeth. He had wised up to the scheme and confronted the couple and was accidentally murdered by them. They attempt to cover it up, but that pesky American police detective figures it out.

The problem with this episode is Basehart and Blackman and their chewing of the scenery. If you ever wanted an example of overacting, watch these two. From what I know, they are generally decent actors in other productions; but, for some reason, they needed to act for the back row of a theater a thousand miles away from their stage.

It is so over the top!

1) Last Salute To The Commodore – Original air date May 2, 1976


And then there was this disaster. It’s horrible. I think it’s meant to be played for laughs, but it just fails so miserably.

This complete misfire was directed by Patrick McGoohan, who had himself acted in the series, playing the murderer on two episodes. McGoohan was largely responsible for the very bizarre, but very intriguing The Prisoner series in which he played the title role. I’m not sure if he brought that bizarreness to this episode, so I won’t placed the blame on him. Not entirely.

I don’t know why, but for this show it was decided to make it an actual mystery. The audience does not know whodunit, which is not the way the series goes. All the other Columbo episodes let us know who the killer is at the beginning and then we are entertained by watching how Columbo catches them. We don’t get that with this show.

The characters are all silly, Columbo is not quite right (there are no “uh, just one more thing” or “oh, I almost forgot” moments), and there are ham-handed attempts at slapstick comedy throughout. What the hell were the producers thinking?!

I recommend you watch it once to see how bad it is and then never, ever watch it again.

Believe me, it’s awful.

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27 thoughts on “Best & worst of Columbo

  1. No one can tell me “Columbo Cries Wolf ” isn’t the most ingenious and dramatic “gotcha” ending of all, having to rank it right up there as a bestie.

      1. Yeah, “Columbo Cries Wolf” is one of the better latter-day segments, along with “Agenda for Murder” with Patrick McGoohan and “Columbo Goes to College.”

        Once you’ve worn out the 70’s episodes I encourage you to check out some of the ones from the revival series (1989-2003). They’re about the same in quality, but with more padding since they all run around 94-98 minutes and the antagonists are usually less worthy actors. There are several other quality episodes from the latter-day series, but — of course — there are some real dogs too, like “No Time to Die” and “Murder in Malibu.”

        As for the worst of the original series, “A Matter of Honor,” “An Old-Fashioned Murder” and “The Conspirators” also come to mind. I agree with the other poster who said “Fade in to Murder” has some redemptive qualities.

      2. I’ve only seen a couple of the post-70s Columbos. I might just have to check some more out.

        I think all of the 70s episodes have some redemptive qualities. Most might just be the down to Peter Falk’s performance. Except the Commodore episode. Even Falk’s performance, which was a little too out of character, couldn’t save that one. Total misfire.

    1. yes cries wolf ending is quite memorable , the episode in general is quite trashy I watched it yesterday on 5 USA and it has its not among the worst new episodes .

  2. Loved IQ and Murder by the Book. Didn’t like McDowall in Short Fuse and thought the plot a little silly.
    Your worst, I thought, were among the bottom but I think Fade has some redemptive value. The other two were absolutely awful. Most episodes are good, however, my favorite being Any Old Port in the Storm.

    1. Dagger of the mind , a matter of honor and old fashioned murderand mind over mayhem are among the poorest of the 70s episodes

      1. I read a review of Dagger and it cast the episode as a satire. In that light, I consider it a good episode. Mayhem is just horrible writing and acting, maybe the worst. Matter of Honor has a story line that stretches credibility. Old Fashioned Murder is flawed but I like the interaction between Van Patton and Falk.

  3. Just saw “No Time to Die”, episode #60. Worst episode EVER! Columbo’s nephew’s newlywed wife gets kidnapped by a the kind of weirdo you’d typically see on Criminal Minds. Total cheeseball! The culprit is identified by perusing college yearbook photos. The team swoops in and rescues the damsel in distress at the last moment. I think the script was plagiarized from a Dudley Do-Right cartoon. “I’ll save you, Nell!” Bring the barf bag.

    1. I still haven’t been able to get myself to watch the non-70s Columbos. I watched one and, although I didn’t think it was awful, it was too much like ‘Murder, She Wrote’, ‘Matlock’, and ‘Diagnosis: Murder’ and that ilk. The 70s episodes, although not all were great, they feel more like movies to me.

      I’m told there are some good non-70s episodes. I may gave them a shot, but I’m in no hurry.

      1. There are a few good new episodes I Would recommend Agenda for Murder , Death hits the Jackpot , columbo goes to college in particular , Caution! murder can be hazardous to your health , murder smoke and shadows , The murder of a rock star and sex and the married detective weren’t bad Either.

        On the other hand there are some stinkers such as Undercover , NO time to die , and Murder in Malibu , these are dreadful pieces of TV and Are almost unwatchable.

    2. No time to Die is dreadful but so are these not quite as bad but very dross like , Murder a self portrait , Murder with too many notes , Its all in the game columbo goes Under the guilllotine amd Murder in Malibu is almost un -watchable .

  4. I agree with last salute being the worst but how the hell can short fuse one of the poorest from the seventies run be second best and what happened to try and catch me , Negative reaction , Swan song and Troubled Waters

  5. I am a regular reader of the columbophile who is reviewing every episode in sequential order in fine detail whilst correspondingly ranking them , His personal favorite is The Bye – Bye sky high IQ murder and also one of mine , however if he saw short fuse as second best he would collapse as he thinks its a poor seventies episode which it is bar the ending , the majority is complicated , messy Ida Lupino is wasted as aunt Dorothy and Roger/roddy mc Dowall comes off as annoying and silly a lot of the time However its still better than dagger of the mind . please read columbophiles full review of short fuse or any other episode up until identity crisis . For me the top 10 columbos are as follows 1 – Try and catch me 2 – Negative reaction 3 – swan song 4 – The Bye – Bye sky high IQ murder 5 – Troubled waters 6 – Identity Crisis 7 – suitable for framing 8 A stitch in crime 9 – Make me a perfect murder 10 – double Exposure . plus many more I couldn’t fit in

    1. I enjoy reading Columbophile’s episode reviews, as well.

      I think your choices of favorites are all pretty darn good, too. However, Make Me A Perfect Murder’s ending gets way too noisy for me to fully enjoy it.

      1. yes the ending to make me a perfect murder is very noisy they could have improved the end scene however its a great episode on the whole

      2. Columbophile has recently reviewed Now you See Him , Jack cassidys 3rd and final Review , Both the Episode and review are Great .

  6. Okay that was my top 10 note it contained only 70s episodes as despite there being some good new additions the nothing matches the naturalness and quality of the 70s run my worst 10 unsurprisingly will contain mostly new episodes (1989 – 2003 ) so what I will do is I will do is rate them separately.
    fade in to murder wasn’t a great columbo but shouldn’t be ranked 3rd worst so here goes
    70s worst 1- last salute to the commodore 2 – a matter of honor 3 – Old fashioned murder 4 – Dagger of the mind 5 – Dead weight 6 – Murder under glass 7- Mind over mayhem 8 – Short Fuse 9 – The conspirators 10 – Requiem for a falling star . with Fade in to murder and the most dangerous match narrowly missing out .

    Worst new ones 1989 – 2003 1 – No time to die 2 – undercover 3 – murder in Malibu 4 – strange bedfellows 5 – Murder with too many notes 6 – Its all in the game 7 – Murder a self portrait 8 – columbo goes under the guillotine 9 – columbo likes the nightlife 10 Grand deceptions , thees plenty more narrowly miss out such as a bird in the hand , ashes to ashes and sex and the married detective
    just briefly the best 3 new ones were Agenda for murder , Columbo goes to college and death hits the jackpot .

  7. Columbophile has recently reviewed Now you see him 1976 withh jack caasidy as the murederous Santini its a true classic and one of my favorites from the 70sm and well worth reading columbophiles reviwew of the episode .

  8. Short Fuse wouldnt Make my top 40 , I dont dislike it but its a poor episode from the 70s run , its a hurried half baked plot that is hard to follow and roger is plain annoying and siliy at times , decent end scene gives it a little credibility but generally poor ,
    However its slightly better than fade in to murder 100 miles better than dagger of the mind and Galaxy s better than Last Salute .

  9. Columbophile has recently reviewed Last salute salute to the commodore and its placed right at the foot of the table for all the reasons stated above . Next review will be Fade in to murder which was also a bit of a Pickle but I could think of worse seventies including the dire Mind over mayhem 1974 , very boring Old fashioned murder the dreary Dead weight 1971 and the uninspiring Murder under Glass 1978 .

  10. Columbophiles review of Fade in to murder is out and its very good , He has rated it fairly low in current standings mainly due to its silliness But its certainly not in the bottom three .

  11. Would easily replace fade in to murder with Old fashioned Murder it is dull poorly written boring and forgetful
    columbophile has recently reviewed it , please read it for a more detailed opinion.

  12. I Would replace Fade in to murder with any of these any day , Old fashioned murder , Murder Under glass , The conspirators , Dead weight or requiem for a falling star and mind over mayhem .

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